Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: The “Eschatological Discourse” (Part 3)

The “Eschatological Discourse” (Part 3)

We have already examined the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse” as presented in Mark (Part 1) and Matthew (Part 2); now it is time to complete the picture with a study of the version in the Gospel of Luke. It was seen how the Matthean version followed the Markan version rather closely, with relatively minor differences in wording, but, at the same time, including additional material which significantly expanded the Discourse. The Lukan version also follows Mark, preserving the (original) scope of the Discourse, but with a simpler and more streamlined structure, as well as a distinctive historical emphasis and context. In many ways, the Lukan Discourse is most instructive for an understanding of the eschatology of the New Testament.

Luke 21:5-36

Lk 21:5-7—Introduction

The literary treatment of the material in Luke is smoother and more elegant, as is typically the case. Consider how the corresponding narrative in Mk 13:1 is summarized:

“And as some (were) relating about the sacred (place) [i.e. Temple], that (it was built) with (such) fine stones and arranged (with gift)s set up (for God), he [i.e. Jesus] said…” (v. 5)

A specific statement by the disciples has been turned into a generalized reference to the beauty and splendor of the Temple complex. The actual saying by Jesus predicting the Temple’s destruction (v. 6), though tailored to fit this syntax, remains close to the Synoptic/Markan form, but with two significant differences:

    • Jesus provides a time setting for the Temple’s destruction: “(the) days will come in which…”
    • The key verbs are given in future indicative, rather than aorist subjunctive, forms; this removes any sense of a threat by Jesus, making it a simple prediction of what will occur. This may relate to the Lukan omission of any reference to the reported saying that Jesus would destroy (and rebuild) the Temple (Mk 14:58 par), though the author surely was aware of the tradition (cf. Acts 6:14).

More substantial is the difference in the wording of the question by the disciples which follows (v. 7); here is a comparison of the three Synoptic versions:

    • “When will these (thing)s be, and what (is) the sign when all these (thing)s shall be about to be completed together [suntelei=sqai]?” (Mk 13:4)
    • “When will these (thing)s be, and what (is) the sign of your coming to be alongside [parousi/a] and of the completion (all) together [sunte/leia] of th(is) Age?” (Matt 24:3b)
    • “So when will these (thing)s be, and what (is) the sign when these (thing)s shall be about to come to be [gi/nesqai]?” (Lk 21:7)

This seems strong evidence in favor of the common Synoptic theory that Matthew and Luke each made use of Mark, adapting the Gospel material in various ways. Clearly, Matthew’s version expounds/explains the eschatological phrase “when all these things are about to be completed together” as “the completion of th(is) Age” marked by Jesus’ return (the noun parousi/a in its technical Christian sense). Luke follows the Markan form of the question much more closely, with two small differences: (a) “these things” instead of “all these things”, and (b) the simple verb gi/nomai (“come to be”) instead of the more technical suntele/w. Both changes appear to soften the eschatological impact of the question, and also limiting its scope to the more immediate issue of the fate of the Temple.

Lk 21:8-11—The sign(s) of what is to come

In this section, the same set of signs is given, as in Mk 13:5-8, and much of the wording is the same as well. The differences are relatively minor, but again rather significant:

    • In the reference to persons who come falsely in Jesus’ name (or claiming to be Jesus himself), verse 8 is almost identical with Mk 13:5-6, but has a different conclusion: “…saying ‘I am (he)’ and ‘the time has come near!’ You should not travel behind [i.e. follow after] them”. The claim “I am he” is paired with “the time has come near”, indicating the false message which might otherwise deceive Jesus’ disciples. The implications are that the period of trouble, prior to the destruction of the Temple, does not represent the actual coming of the end itself (cp. 2 Thess 2:2ff). Note the interesting parallel in wording (“the time has come near”) with the (eschatological) proclamation by Jesus himself in Mk 1:15 par (“the time has been fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near”); significantly, Luke does not record this (but cf. 10:9-11).
    • When referring to the period of warfare among the nations, the Lukan form of Jesus’ explanation differs slightly:
      “…it is necessary (that these things) come to be, but the completion (is) not yet (here)” (Mk 13:7b)
      “…for it is necessary (that) these (thing)s first come to be, but the completion (does) not (come) straightaway” (Lk 21:9b)
      Luke’s version here establishes, in a subtle way, a more precise sequence of events.
    • The description of natural disasters/phenomena (Mk 13:8b) is expanded in Luke’s version: “…and there will be great shakings and (time)s of hunger and pestilence down (in many) places, and there will be fearful (thing)s and great signs from heaven” (v. 11). These serve, in large measure, to enhance the (eschatological) significance of the coming destruction of the Temple (cf. below).
    • Luke omits, or does not include, the final statement in Mark that “these are the beginning of (the birth) pains”
Lk 21:12-19—The persecution (of the disciples) which is to come

Compared with Matthew (cf. Part 2), the Lukan version follows Mark (13:9-13) quite closely in this section. Again, however, there are some important differences, beginning with the opening words of verse 12: “But before all these (thing)s (occur)…”. This makes clear what otherwise has to be inferred in Mark, that persecution of the disciples will take place even before the destruction of the Temple (and the signs preceding it). Obviously, this corresponds completely with the record in the book of Acts, all of which takes place prior to the war in 66-70. Luke also identifies the arrest/interrogation of believers in terms of the persecution of believers (“and they will pursue [diw/cousin] [you]”). There is an interesting shift in emphasis as well, regarding the purpose and effect of this persecution:

    • In Mark (13:9b), the arrest/interrogation of the disciples was allowed (by God) for the purpose of providing a witness to people on behalf of Jesus (i.e. proclamation of the Gospel)—”…unto a witness for/to them”
    • In Luke (v. 13), by contrast, this persecution serves as a witness for the disciples, i.e. their role as witnesses of Christ—”…it will step away [i.e. come out] for you unto a witness”

There is some question as to why Luke does not include the statement in Mk 13:10, given its obvious application to the narrative of the early Christian mission in the book of Acts. Fitzmyer, in his classic commentary (p. 1340) claims that this simply reflects the Lukan tendency to avoid using the noun eu)agge/lion, and does not have any eschatological significance per se. This is certainly possible; however, if the Gospel was composed after 70 A.D., it may also have been omitted to avoid any suggestion that the Christian mission would be completed entirely before the destruction of the Temple.

Most intriguing is the difference between verse 15 and Mk 13:11. The Markan form of the promise/exhortation to the disciples emphasizes the role of the Spirit, whereas in Luke it is the personal work of Jesus—”For I will give you a mouth and wisdom…”. This difference may be due to the fact that a similar statement, involving the Spirit, had already been presented earlier in the Gospel (12:11-12, par Matt 10:9-10). There are also a couple of differences in the concluding words of this section:

    • The addition of the proverbial saying in verse 18: “And (yet) a (single) hair out of your head shall not suffer loss from (this)”.
    • The wording of the final promise:
      “(It is) in your remaining under (that) you must acquire your souls” (v. 19)
      “…but the (one) remaining under unto the completion—this (one) will be saved!” (Mk 13:13b)

Given the reference to the disciples enduring persecution (and death), the saying in v. 18 seems somewhat out of place. In its proverbial sense (cf. 1 Sam 14:45; 2 Sam 14:11; 1 Kings 1:52; Acts 27:34), it is a generalized saying reflecting God’s care and protection for believers. However, the context of the parallel saying in 12:7 (par Matt 10:30), suggests that here it refers to the soul of the disciple/believer—though the body may be harmed, the soul will suffer no loss. The following statement in v. 19 would certainly confirm this. The same sentiment is expressed beautifully in the deutero-canonical book of Wisdom:

“But the souls of the just (one)s are in the hand of God,
and the torment [ba/sano$] shall (certainly) not touch them” (3:1)

The wording of verse 19 would appear to be another example of the Lukan softening of the eschatological implications for the disciples. The Markan form clearly indicates that the disciples are expected to continue faithfully, enduring persecution and the time of distress, until the end comes. In Luke, by contrast, it takes the form of a more general exhortation applicable to all believers. Both versions, however, emphasize the necessity for remaining faithful—it is only the faithful disciple who will be saved (i.e. “acquire [thei]r souls”) in the end.

Lk 21:20-24—The period of great distress before the end

It is here in this section that the Lukan version differs most noticeably from Mark and the Synoptic Discourse as a whole. The differences, compared with Mark-Matthew, may be summarized as follows:

    • The allusion to Dan 9:27 (Mk 13:14 par) has been replaced/explained entirely in terms of the coming military siege of Jerusalem (v. 20)
    • The statement regarding the “(great) distress [qli/yi$]” in Mk 13:19 par has similarly been ‘replaced’ by a more specific reference to the suffering and judgment to be faced by the people of Judea (v. 23b), mirrored by the additional saying in v. 22.
    • The references to the coming of false Messiahs/prophets and the role of the Elect in the time of distress (Mk 13:20-23 par) have all been omitted, or are otherwise not included.
    • Instead, the section concludes with a distinctive prophecy regarding the siege/destruction of Jerusalem (v. 24), following upon the initial warning in v. 20.

Thus, in Luke, the “time of distress” is made more precise and localized—it refers specifically to the judgment which will come upon Judea, centered in the form of a military siege of Jerusalem, leading to its conquest/destruction, and, with it, the destruction of the Temple. This naturally brings about a number of critical questions in terms of the relation of this Lukan version to the Synoptic Tradition.

First, we must consider v. 20 in relation to the Daniel allusion in Mk 13:14 par, discussed in Parts 1 & 2, the supplemental study on the influence of the book of Daniel on New Testament eschatology, as well as the earlier study on Dan 9:24-27. There are several possibilities:

    • Jesus made two different statements together, and the Gospel writers (Mark/Matt and Luke, respectively) each record only one. This would be a strict harmonization, perhaps favored/required by some traditional-critical commentators; it is, however, most unlikely. Three other options remain:
    • Luke has inserted a somewhat similar eschatological prediction (by Jesus) in place of the Synoptic (Mark/Matt) reference to Dan 9:27
    • Luke is explaining/interpreting an original saying by Jesus
    • Luke has the original saying by Jesus (in context), which the Synoptic tradition (in Mark/Matthew) has couched within a cryptic allusion to Dan 9:27

The second and third options are, in my view, the only viable alternatives. Both receive confirmation from the earlier words of Jesus in 19:41-44, located at the fateful moment of his approach to Jerusalem. If we accept vv. 43-44 as authentic, then Jesus, on at least one occasion, prophesied a horrific military siege of the city. The wording is similar to both the prediction of the Temple’s destruction (21:6 par), as well as that here in v. 20. And yet, the evidence cuts both ways; on the one hand, it supports the authenticity of such a prediction by Jesus, but, at the same time, it demonstrates the Gospel writer’s interest for including such detail (regarding the siege of Jerusalem) not found in any of the other Gospels. While the destruction of Jerusalem is certainly implied in the framework of the Eschatological Discourse, as well as in Lk 13:34-35 / Matt 23:37-39 (“Q” tradition), only in Luke do we find detail describing a specific military siege. The best explanation for this remains the critical assumption that the Lukan Gospel was written (shortly) after 70 A.D. This does not, by any means, invalidate the authenticity of the sayings; it does, however, explain why the Gospel writer chose to include them as he did.

The use of the word e)rh/mwsi$ (“desolation”) certainly derives from the LXX of Dan 9:27; 11:31; 12:11 and the Hebrew expression <m@v) JWQv! (“detestable [thing] causing devastation”), rendered in Greek as to\ bde/lugma th=$ e)rhmw/sew$ (“stinking [thing] of desolation”). The idea of causing (or intending to cause) desolation certainly fits well with the Roman siege/destruction of Jerusalem; even Josephus uses this sort of language, referring to the “desolation” (e)rhmi/a) coming upon the city and its people (War 6.288-96). As for the expression “days of (work)ing out justice” (h(me/rai e)kdikh/sew$), it may be drawn from Hos 9:7 LXX, with “justice” in the sense of punishment or retribution. In Hosea it refers to the judgment which is about to come upon Israel, and that is precisely the same context here in the Eschatological discourse—punishment upon Judea and Jerusalem. For similar language, cf. Deut 32:35; Jer 46:10 [LXX 26:10], and note the various oracles prophesying Jerusalem’s earlier destruction (Mic 3:12; Jer 6:1-8; 26:1-9).

The expression of woe in verse 23 is similar in theme to the prophecy by Jesus in 23:27-31, almost certainly referring to the same ‘time of distress’—the siege and destruction of Jerusalem (“the days are coming…”). For the language used by Jesus in that latter prophecy, cf. Isa 37:22; 54:1ff; Zeph 3:14; Zech 9:9. The idea of people calling to the mountains to cover them and put an end to their suffering, comes from Hos 10:8; its eschatological significance, as a reference to the end-time Judgment, is found in Rev 6:16. The setting in Lk 23:27-31 also makes clear a connection between the death of Jesus and the destruction of Jerusalem, however uncomfortable this might be for Christians today. The kindling/burning of the dry wood is a traditional symbol of judgment (Isa 10:16-19; Ezek 20:47, etc). Again, the suffering/judgment in the Lukan version of the Discourse is focused specifically on Judea (“this land” / “this people”).

The nature and reason for this punishment is explained by the allusions to Deut 28:64 (cf. also Sir 28:18) in verse 24. The context in Deuteronomy involves the curse/punishment which will come upon the people for disobedience (i.e. violating the covenant), as expressed similarly in Ezek 32:9; Ezra 9:7, etc. In the original historical tradition, siege/destruction led to exile among the nations; however, Zechariah 12:2-3ff describes things in the reverse direction—the nations gathering together for a siege of Jerusalem, in an eschatological setting. This language likely influenced the description in verse 24 of Jerusalem being “trampled under the nations” (cf. also Rev 11:2, and the [upcoming] daily note that verse). The closing phrase “until the [moment] at which the times of the nations should be fulfilled” gives a distinctive chronological setting to the Discourse which is unique to Luke’s version, and one which depends entirely on the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. as a point of reference. This will be discussed further in the conclusion to our study on the Discourse (Part 4). There is a reasonably close parallel to this language in Tob 14:5, and Paul uses a similar manner of speaking (Rom 11:25), though in terms of the early Christian mission to the Gentiles.

Luke 21:25-28—The coming of the Son of Man

Here the Lukan version follows Mark fairly closely, though with a somewhat different emphasis. The celestial phenomena (and the Scriptural allusions to them, cf. Part 1) in vv. 25f are no longer simply an indication of the Son of Man’s appearance (theophany). Rather, they now represent an extension of the Judgment coming upon humankind—in vv. 25-26 the Synoptic tradition has been adapted to include humanity’s reaction (fear and astonishment), in traditional language from the Old Testament (Psalm 46:4; Isa 24:19; cf. also Ps 65:8; 89:10). This brings the scene close in tone and feel to the sixth-seal vision in the book of Revelation (6:12-17). Also important is the shift in location from Judea to the whole “inhabited world” (oi)kome/nh); if verses 20-24 refer the Judgment coming upon Judea, vv. 25ff describe that coming upon the whole world. It is possible that the omission of the phrase “in those days” (Mk 13:24) is meant to emphasize this distinction of two periods of Judgment—one for Judea (culminating in the destruction of the Temple), and one for all the nations.

Luke’s version also has quite different wording in reference to the deliverance which the Son of Man brings. In Mk 13:27 par, we have the traditional eschatological imagery of Angels gathering the elect from the ends of the earth; by contrast, here we find a more general promise of salvation, though one with Messianic implications:

“And (when) these (thing)s are beginning to come to be, you must bend (your necks) up and lift up your heads, for (the reason) that [i.e. because] your loosing from (bondage) [a)polu/trwsi$] comes near!” (v. 28)

We may recall that Luke earlier had omitted the proclamation by Jesus that “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near” (Mk 1:15 par, but cp. Lk 10:11); similarly, the declaration “the time has come near” is the mark of false Messiahs (v. 8). It is only with the appearance of the Son of Man, at the end-time, that the Kingdom truly “comes near” (vb. e)ggi/zw). The Anointed One now brings the long-awaited deliverance (lit. “loosing from [bondage]”) for the faithful ones among God’s people (on this expectation, cf. 1:68-77; 2:25-26, 38; 23:51). For the word a)polu/trwsi$ in this sense, as adapted by early Christians, see Acts 3:19-21; Rom 8:23; Eph 4:30.

Luke 21:29-33—Illustrations regarding the time of the End

A small but significant difference in the Lukan version here is the reference to the “Kingdom of God” in v. 31: “when you see these (thing)s coming to be, (then) know that the kingdom of God is near” (Mk 13:29 par, simply, “…know that it is near”). This repeats the point noted above—that in Luke, the coming of the Kingdom is specifically linked to the end-time, and is defined in terms of the appearance of the Son of Man (i.e. the return of Jesus, for early Christians). The Kingdom will not be fully realized until that time (cf. Acts 1:6-8). Another small difference is in the saying of v. 33, where Luke has “all things [pa/nta]” instead of “all these things [tau=ta pa/nta]” (Mk 13:30). In a subtle way, this deflects away from the signs of the end to its actual fulfillment—the coming of the Kingdom. The difficult saying in v. 33 par itself will be discussed in a separate article on imminent eschatology in the Gospels.

Luke 21:34-36—Concluding exhortation

Here Luke demonstrates a simplification/modification of the Synoptic discourse in Mk 13:33-37 par, with two notable results: (1) it emphasizes the idea of the coming Judgment, and (2) it becomes a more direct ethical exhortation for believers. The first point is brought out especially in verse 34b-35, making clear that the end-time Judgment will begin suddenly, without warning:

“…and that day will stand upon you without shining (in advance) [i.e. unexpectedly], as a trap—for it will come (suddenly) upon all the (one)s sitting [i.e. dwelling] upon the face of all the earth!”

The Judgment scene is described even more clearly in verse 36, moving from the experience of humankind on earth, to the heavenly court: “…to stand in front of the Son of Man [i.e. as Judge]” (cf. Matt 25:31-46, etc). Only the faithful disciple (believer) will be able to stand in the final Judgment, and pass through it. For the earliest Christians, this was the fundamental context and meaning of salvation—being saved from the coming Judgment.

The exhortation for believers here also specifically involves prayer (a special emphasis in Luke): “And (so) you must be without sleep [i.e. awake/alert], making request [i.e. praying] (to God) in every time…” It is this combination of alertness and devotion to God (in prayer) which marks the faithful disciple. The closing words encompass the entire discourse, as instruction for believers on how to be prepared for “all these (thing)s th(at) are about to come to be”—i.e. all that Jesus has mentioned in the Discourse. The seriousness of this is indicated by the exhortation to stay awake and in prayer (as in subsequent Passion scene in the garden, 22:40, 45-46 par). The time of distress, including temptation and persecution for believers, will require “strength against” it (vb. katisxu/w), and believers must be prepared to “flee out of” it (vb. e)kfeu/gw). This is very much the sort of idea expressed famously by Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:13; Lk 11:4b), and provides confirmation for scholars who see a definite eschatological dimension to the prayer—there, too, Jesus speaks of the coming of the Kingdom (Matt 6:10/Lk 11:2), as here in v. 31.

For a number of references and insights mentioned above, I am indebted to the fine commentary on Luke by J. A. Fitzmyer in the Anchor Bible series (Vol 28A: 1985); for the Lukan “Eschatological Discourse”, cf. pp. 1323-56.

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